Insider’s Guide to Oaklawn 2018: Derby Dreams in the Heart of the South

Events / Travel
First-class racing at Oaklawn Park. (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

The South’s fifth season (spring, summer, fall, winter, Oaklawn) begins with an action-packed holiday weekend this Friday, Jan. 12. Oaklawn Park prepared in the offseason for continued growth, and new high-profile horsemen join perennial favorites in Hot Springs, Ark., for 2018. 

Oaklawn was number one in the nation for field size in 2017. When their season ended, three new barns were constructed, along with the American Pharoah Gardens that showcase a life-size bronze statue of the 2015 Arkansas Derby and Triple Crown winner. Stall applications still exceeded available space for 2018, and over 1,560 horses are on the grounds.

The track raised purses for the 10th consecutive year with $30 million projected to be distributed, which is among the country’s highest purse structures for this time of year.

The infield on Arkansas Derby Day 2017.

These features attracted jockeys like Mike Luzzi, who is moving his tack after 20 years at Aqueduct, and Hall of Famer Gary Stevens.

“I chose Oaklawn because of the quality racing, quality horses, quality people, and quality purses, and a possible Derby horse,” Stevens said.

Trainer Norm McKnight, who recently beat recurring champion Mark Casse for the Woodbine meet wins title, has brought a Canadian contingent. Two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Doug O’Neill has a string of 20 horses.

“Big purses, exciting racing, and lots of Derby contenders come out of the great Oaklawn meet,” O’Neill said. “We are looking forward to participating in all of that this season.”

The road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve runs through Hot Springs. Four races – the $150,000 Smarty Jones (Jan. 15), the Grade 3, $500,000 Southwest (Feb. 19), the Grade 2, $900,000 Rebel (March 17), and the Grade 1, $1,000,000 Arkansas Derby (April 14) – offer 289 points and $2.55 million in purses. These four race cards – along with the season opener – comprise Oaklawn’s top five attendance days. Three of these days fall on holidays.

The Smarty Jones is run on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and features a ball cap giveaway. This weekend also serves up the 50-cent corned beef promotion on Saturday.

Fans at Oaklawn on a perfect spring day. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The Southwest is contested on Presidents Day along with the Grade 3, $500,000 Razorback Handicap, the race that started Gun Runner’s blockbuster 2017. In addition to these big races, one of Oaklawn’s most popular promotions, Progressive Cash Giveaway, is part of this day. Everyone receives an entry coupon at the gate. A $1,000 winner is drawn after Race 1 and a $2,000 winner is drawn after Race 2. The giveaway increases by $1,000 each race and culminates with $10,000 awarded after Race 10.

This year, the Rebel falls on St. Patrick’s Day, the same day as the First Ever 15th Annual World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Hot Springs has been named No. 8 among the "Top 10 Spots in the World to Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day" by Irish Central, an Irish media hub. This year’s parade starter is Jon Heder, who starred in “Napolean Dynamite,” and the Grand Marshal is Joey Fatone of *NSYNC. They will join Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, the Irish Order of Elvis Impersonators, and over 30,000 spectators on the 98-foot parade route.

Weather permitting, the infield will be open the final five Saturdays of the season, from the Rebel Stakes to the Arkansas Derby. The park-within-a-park will have live music, beer gardens, bounce houses, and a petting zoo. Oaklawn offers barn tours as part of Dawn at Oaklawn every Saturday morning beginning Feb. 17 from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. local time. Fans watch horses train and mingle with owners, trainers, and jockeys. No reservations are required.

The 57-day meet concludes on April 14, Arkansas Derby day, the final major prep race for the Kentucky Derby. This is one of the most well-attended race days anywhere, with a crowd of over 60,000 each year.

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